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NW Fishletter #340, December 18, 2014

[2] Enviros Challenge Corps Over Lower Snake Dredging

Environmental groups have filed a motion in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from dredging the navigation channel in the lower Snake River near Lewiston, Idaho, where just last month, a towboat went aground while maneuvering two barges.

It's their latest move in a larger battle to challenge the Corps' Record of Decision over the dredging action, which was released last month, in litigation that critics say is just part of a larger strategy that focuses on breaching the lower Snake dams.

The groups filed suit against the Corps' ROD on Nov. 24 and filed the motion for preliminary injunction two days later. Plaintiffs include Friends of the Clearwater, Idaho Rivers United, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Nez Perce Tribe, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Sierra Club, and the Washington Wildlife Federation.

In their motion, the groups say the Corps is wrong to assert that the channel needs dredging "immediately," because it has taken years for the federal agency to complete a sediment plan to guide its actions. In fact, the area hasn't been dredged since 2006.

They also say the Corps has relied on a faulty EIS, which included only two alternatives (reservoir control and dredging), and failed to examine other ways to control sediment, which may increase as a result of a changing climate, since both more forest fires and precipitation are expected in the future.

The motion to stop the dredging action, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 12, also says the Corps has relied on an outdated cost/benefit analysis that overestimated the value of dredging, since tonnage has declined over the years, and it would have an adverse impact on lamprey, a species in decline, that is much prized by the Nez Perce Tribe.

On Dec. 15, the Corps filed a response that argued the need for dredging was "immediate," because of shallow conditions in the navigation channel (normally 14 feet deep) below the Ice Harbor Dam lock (9 feet) and near the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake rivers, where the channel is as shallow as 9 feet deep in some places. The agency also argued that the harm to lamprey was only speculative.

"Granting the motion, by contrast, would leave the channel at dimensions other than those specified by Congress and continue to present a harm to navigational safety," said the Corps.

The Corps also noted that the declaration from David Statler, director of resident fisheries for the Nez Perce Tribe, presented no data to support their argument of harm to lamprey. The agency said it had taken nearly 700 samples from potential dredging sites and found no sign of juvenile lamprey. And it said the Nez Perce declaration reflected only 17 lamprey in the entire lower Granite Reservoir, "That is significant given that the planned dredging and disposal areas cover just 1.5 percent of the 8,900-acre reservoir," the Corps said.

The Corps' filing also said that its own EIS noted that "wildfire in the watershed has been increasing and that fire-affected areas are a primary sediment contributor, which may signal an increase in sediment loading from forested watersheds," but "whether or not these conditions would affect sediment transport and accumulation when considered in combination with changes in precipitation and tributary flows cannot be reasonably predicted at this time."

Furthermore, the Corps argued that an EIS does not need a cost/benefit analysis, a matter of law its brief said was settled forty years ago. The plaintiffs had argued that "available evidence demonstrates that the current decline in shipping volume--and consequently any benefits expected from channel maintenance--is likely to continue in both the short and long-term." They argued that shipping in the Clarkston area results in only $5 million to $6.7 million in annual benefits, while the Corps estimates it would cost $1 million to $5 million per year in dredging costs to maintain the river channel.

But a declaration from Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, and a defendant intervener, argued that Snake River cargo volumes have been "remarkably stable" over the years. She said the Corps' lock system tracked 3.8 million tons of commercial cargo in 1993, 3.1 million tons in 2002, and 3.1 million tons in 2012. "And, while barge traffic did decline with the 2007 recession, river freight is rapidly returning to pre-recession levels," she said. The group submitted a 2013 report that estimated the annual net benefit from barging ranged from $5 million to nearly $16 million.

In his own declaration, Darryll Olsen, executive director of the Columbia-Snake Irrigators Association, another defendant-intervener, said the eastside economy depended on competitive transportation systems beyond rail and trucking. "In recent months, severe transportation bottlenecks in rail and trucking have raised costs, and the problem would be significantly worse without a functioning barge system on the Snake and Columbia rivers."

Federal judge James Robart has scheduled oral arguments Jan. 2. -B. R.

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